"Hello Grandma! It's me!"
Look at this door. See how worn it is? Would a door look like this if people outside it and inside it didn’t want to pass through it? Touch the door handle. Let’s step inside!
Somewhere in a cold disconnected corner of the internet, someone has proposed that grandparents should focus on themselves instead of helping care for their grandchildren. That the grandparents should work and focus on themselves, and besides, germs can spread between grandparents and grandchildren.
I understand that many people don’t have relationships (good or bad) with their grandparents. I can only speak of my own experience. This story happens to focus on one close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren and the value of that particular bond — for both parties.
Come along, look at this house. This is where I spent a lot of my childhood. I’ll tell you why I am convinced grandparents are very much needed in our lives.
This is my paternal grandparents’ house. It has been empty many years. It is now a shell. In it was once such living warmth and caring and creativity that I suspect very few are granted on this earth. It is difficult to describe the impact my paternal grandmother had on me and on everyone else she met and interacted with. She was a true matriarch — and I never fully grasped it until very recently. Because she didn’t lead with force. She led with love and humility.
She taught by living the example. She took a deep interest in all her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And, may I add, extended family members and boyfriends and girlfriends who tagged along for a few years before parting way with our family. All of them received the gift of acknowledgement from my grandmother: a pair of her hand-knitted wool socks. But this is but a mere scratch on the surface.
The impact this house and its inhabitants has had on me and my life spans over twenty years. This was my second home. My grandmother was my second mother. Layers of history, tradition and wisdom were absorbed here. Consciously and subconsciously.
Trying to explain this to someone who asserts that grandparents should focus only on themselves and their well-earned right to freedom and peace instead of exhausting themselves with those annoying grandchildren is, well, futile? Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Come on inside and see. Let’s step in to Fammo’s (paternal grandmother = farmor in Swedish which means father’s mother, hence ‘fammo’). Here is the entrance room, cozy and cool during hot summer nights, and freezing cold during midwinter storms. Hops would crawl up strings and cover the windows during summer and turn this space into a green and somewhat magical room.
Fammo would sit here and wait for us. Or someone else. Or no one at all. She would sit and watch the world. Because she wanted to. Or because she was worried. Or because she was happy. She sat here because it made her feel good. She was able to watch the world zoom by on the countryside road below the window. She had time and it gave her purpose, I think. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep she would go and sit here.
Often, no, almost always, when we grandchildren came back from some outing or trip, we’d pop by Fammo’s for a quick hello. There wasn’t a single time in my entire life that I would have noticed that she would have been annoyed or irritated that we’d pop by to say hello. Quite the opposite! She had the most kind laughter I have ever heard, a sort of warm chuckle that signaled active listening. She paid attention. Always.
See the minty green painted wooden walls? They’re flaking now, but they used to be smooth and light up the entire space with an indescribable feeling of welcome and calm. An instant feeling of safety.
Now, let’s continue inside. Scroll down a bit to see Fammo’s sewing machine. A Singer from 1900-something. She never got a modern sewing machine. She used this one from the day I can remember until the last years of her life. It symbolizes all the things Fammo created. She could sew, knit, crochet and embroider anything. And she did. Being in her presence my sisters, cousins, and I could witness that process of creating and making and mending — and connect it to our lives, to our families and beyond.
Fammo would donate handmade things such as mittens and socks to church auctions, and we quietly paid attention to her down-to-earth belief in God and generosity. We were there when she baked bread and made jam and bottled juices from berries she had picked in the forest or in the garden. She did this well into her older years, when all of us were getting older too. I remember my paternal grandfather less well, but I do recall him hunting elk and how the meat was prepared by my grandmother in the kitchen. I remember the smell and taste of the elk meat and how we used to dip pieces of homemade bread in the fatty drippings. Delicious!
We were there with our grandparents throughout their daily lives. We were taking part of it, interacting and participating with the older generation in a natural way. These experiences were invaluable to us and they shaped us into who we are today. We understand the world better because of these experiences.
Fammo did have her own chores to do, especially when I was younger and grandfather and his father (!) both still were alive and had to be cared for. Imagine that. And then little Minna scurrying around and choking on coffee cake so my cousin’s mother had to come running to perform some elaborate finger maneuver to extract too much half-chewed cake from the roof of my mouth. And still Fammo maintained leadership through calm and love. And we children absorbed that calm and love, and carried it with us, quietly across the years into the future.
So let’s move on and look at the surroundings. The garden. Scroll down past the Singer machine.
To my American friends I describe it as living in a Pippi Longstocking story, or a mostly happy (!) Ingmar Bergman movie. A cocoon of warmth and in many ways predictability and familiarity. Things that are good for a child. Things that are good for a family, for generations of families that live close to one another. Grandparents all over the world seem to share at least one common trait: they love talking about their grandchildren and share in great and exhausting detail every minute detail they can about them to every ear that is willing to listen. It gives purpose to their lives. Every human needs purpose in life. Otherwise, what’s the point of keeping on?
The cold corners of internet will now hasten to smirk and wonder if there never were any bad days or unhappy memories. Yes. Many. And yet, the positive ones far outnumber the negative ones. As I became older and spent more time away from this corner of the world, I often felt guilty for not checking in often enough with my dear Fammo. There she still was, for many years, in her magical cottage, sitting and waiting and worrying and loving — while we grandchildren were taking our own first stumbling steps toward adulthood. Still we stopped by as often as we could, and the fantastic time machine always worked.
Stepping into this house was unlike anything you’ve experienced. It was the safest place on earth. Where heartache and stress and awful feelings somehow became less intense. Where a glimmer of the true and important always met us as soon as we stepped inside. Except one thing: the magic did not stop all of us from growing older.
It would be a damn shame if the grandchildren and grandparents of the future won’t have a chance to experience something similar together. I realize I was one of the lucky ones. All grandchildren should be fortunate enough to be able to dash up these steps and pull open the door and shout: “Hello Grandma! It’s me!” And every grandparent would respond: “Well, hello there! I’ve been wondering where you’ve been!”